Tuesday, June 24, 2008

jian bing: beijing street food

Ever since I was little, my parents treated street food in Beijing like the bad boy in high school; they barred me from even getting within a 10 feet range, they covered my eyes, telling me how it was dirty, cheap, and would give me unwanted health problems. Like the ever-obedient child that I was, I listened, though a longing built up in my gut everytime I walked down a small sidestreet and spied one of those pushcarts. Sure, at one point, these mobile vendors would have been a health inspector's worst nightmare (or dream) with the number of health codes they were violating. But nowadays, the situation is much better, as more sanitation laws and requirements have been put in place.

My first tryst with the popular Beijing street food known as jiān bǐng happened one hot summer morning when I was deemed by my family just old enough to start going out on my own. The cart that I remembered from summers past had upgraded to a small dimly-lit store front window, where customers lined up, shouted out their orders, paid and watched the young boy in the window as he whipped up a steaming hot crêpe in under one minute. As the morning rush of nannies, housewives, bicyclists going to work pushed past me to pick up a quick breakfast, I inserted myself at the back of the quickly moving line. Nervous and wide-eyed, I wasn't sure how to order. There wasn't a menu posted overhead, no pictures, nothing. This was Beijing street food at its best- for everyday people, not hyped up for tourists. Mustering up my confidence, I pointed to the dark crêpe batter, raised my finger to indicate one, and said "I'll have everything." I handed over my ¥2 (about $0.25 at the time) and excitedly watched through the fogged-up glass as my jiān bǐng was expertly made.

He wiped off the circular griddle with a towel, and ladled out some of the dark batter, spreading it out with a wooden tool. Paper thin at the edges, the crêpe instantly cooked up as it hit the smoking hot griddle. With a flick of the wrist, he cracked open an egg right on top of the crêpe, breaking up the yolk with the same tool, and sprinkling on a mixture of scallion and cilantro. With the egg still somewhat runny, he flipped the crêpe in one fell swoop, and brushed on two sauces on the other side, one hoisin, the other a spicy chili paste. The final element in this process is what jian bing is best known for- the crispy-fried rectangular cruller that gets placed inside. The edges of the crêpe are then folded in to form a steamy package of egginess, slid into a filmy plastic bag, and was handed over to me. All this in less than a minute. As I stepped away, the boy was moving onto making another crêpe, one of the many hundreds more he'd made that morning.

With that first bite with my nose and face buried into that warm baggie, I was hooked. The crêpe part was nutty, which I later discovered I'd ordered the buckwheat batter. The egg was wonderfully hashed in with the crêpe, spicy and sweet from the mixture of sauces. The addition of the scallion and cilantro gave it a cooling and fragrant freshness, with an added bit of crunch. I particularly enjoyed the thin fried dough hiding inside, which had wilted down from the heat, but gave the jian bing a degree of richness. (This is the same dough as used in Chinese fried crullers.) It was chewy and warmly satisfying, proof that a well rounded breakfast doesn't have to be eaten sitting down. Little did I know it, this was the beginning of an addiction, but at least an affordable one.

In subsequent years, everytime I visited Beijing, my internal jiān bǐng clock would rouse me at sunrise, driving me downstairs to the stand I knew and loved so well. The owners must have been doing well, since they expanded their morning selections to all sorts of savory and sweet pastries, steamed and stuffed buns, and warm soymilk and silken tofu (dou fu nao), another one of my morning favorites. In later years, they raised their prices to a shocking ¥2.5 ($0.35), which is actually a big increase for locals, who remember the days of ¥1 ($0.15) crepes.

I've never tried to make these in my own kitchen; I know it could never be the same. Not just in terms of the ingredients and equipment, but I'd be missing so much than that- my expectant grandparents upstairs nervously awaiting my return, the buzz of the morning working class, hungry and slightly edgy, the excitement of biting into a once-forbidden food, and the experience of eating from a plastic bag, while walking down a Beijing alley that was just coming alive with the day's first light.

There are hundreds of jian bing operators and vendors scattered all throughout Beijing, but you must hit the streets early, as it is a breakfast item. (Though now, you can probably find them sold to tourists at larger night markets.) There are the usual batters- white, mung bean, and buckwheat, and the toppings are the same from vendor to vendor. Prices will range from ¥2 to ¥3.

Illustration from Luxuryeats.com


Tai said...

I grew up in Beijing... haven't been back in 10 years, and I STILL dream about jianbings. So good!

jcyrai said...

Oh gawd, I just hand a hankering for "jian bing" and came across your post.. do you know of anywhere in the SF, or even the Bay Area, that makes it? I'll drive to the South Bay if it means getting a fix!

James said...

I lived in BJ for 3+ years and developed a habit of several jianbing per week. Especially loved the spicy sauce, always asking for extra.

Great blog by the way.

Maddison said...

I lived in Beijing for 6 months, and this was seriously the tastiest take away food imaginable! It is great in summer and absolutely delicious on a cold winters day. If anyone visits Beijing again you should definitely try it :)

Rebecca said...

I grew up in China and although I've found a recipe for those fantastic onion cakes I used to eat in Sichuan, I can't find a recipe for Jian Bing. Anyone? Or a Chinese place in the SF bay area that sells them? I have such a craving ...

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